Mama

I will always be the bigger person.

Because motherhood is bigger than this. Being a parent is bigger than just my person. I am still trying to teach them and raise them. Raise them to see what is right. And if my heart has to break into a million little pieces every day all over again, I will do that. Because it is bigger than me and my grief.

And thus I will always be the bigger person.

Challenged

I am not the sort of person that loves residing in her comfort zone. I just don’t like it there: it is too comfortable. So before I even have a chance to truly settle anywhere, I usually find a way to shake things up. I guess you could say I do it to myself? Restless soul. So these days, I translated that habit in miniature form (no moving abroad for me) and started some new challenges, ranging from silly to rather demanding.

A dress a day

This one started with my girls saying “mum, you have so many dresses but you always go to work in jeans”. And they were right.. After a forced quarantine lasting several months, they were more right than ever.

I have to admit (blushing red cheeks while I do): I have an incredible weakness for dresses, from the little black dress to flared flowery summer-dresses. I still wear dresses from the time when I was 16, I also have hand me downs and secondhand ones, dresses of all lengths and in all colours. So I started the “dress a day”-challenge with my girls and posted a collage at the end of every week. And after six weeks, honestly, it is getting to a point where it is embarrassing to keep posting. But the nicest thing about this challenge is that friends and colleagues feel inspired to do the same. Do not wait for a special occasion, an especially warm day or a party, please wear it now! Wear it for your online zoom-meeting for all I care, but wear it.

Vegan-challenge

I need to add some background before this one makes sense. In Africa, I had the advantage of fresh produce every day: tropical fruit, milk straight from the farm, mangoes picked from the tree.. And on top of that, there was the unexpected side-effect of less temptation to eat processed foods or refined sugars. Yes, there was less choice but I find that a shortage of choice can be a source of riches as well, especially when the shortage is merely a lack of luxury and excess.

So when we moved to South America, my body reacted. All of a sudden, we had supermarkets filled with imported food, Starbucks at every corner, Ubereats and more things that I had forgotten about and that my children never even knew. And it wasn’t so much a case of indulgence (although we did, believe me we did), but I just had to adjust I guess? And before I even did that to the full, we moved again. Throw a mental depression and a Corona-quarantine in the mix and I ended up with 10k of extra dead weight and feeling like shit.

Make a long story long: something had to happen. I joined Strava, for one. Running has saved my mind before so it could do that again, running makes me feel like I have wings so I needed to get that back. But clearly, diets are not for me: I get cranky, hangry. I experimented with gluten-free, intermittent fasting, less meat, keto.. ugh, it just did my head in. And let’s not forget I am getting older: the same effort of the past does not give the same result.

And then I watched the documentary “The Game Changers” – and everything just came together. A healthier diet, a more ethical choice, a lower risk to develop diseases, more power to work out. This was it! And it has been. This is not an attempt to convince anyone, I am the last person to tell someone else what they should do. In the meantime, I have seen more documentaries and have researched websites and have read books from the library, subscribed to newsletters, spoke to vegans.. It took me some time, but I am starting to know what I am doing. It is a pity, it takes so much initiative and effort from an individual, it should be easier. But anyway. I made that effort.

Do not get me wrong:

  • I do not think everyone should do this. The world’s biggest problem is not that humans eat animals. The world’s biggest – and underlying – problem is that there are too many of us. The fact that we need food to feed us all, is just a side effect. The fact that first world people eat food that is too rich and eat too much is a completely different chapter even.
  • I do not think it is unethical to eat animals or animal products. Humans have large intestine for a reason. I also would not raise my children vegan. But when I see battery chickens, I am repulsed. When I see the crap in our oceans that fish swallow, I am disgusted. Yet again: the problem is that we take things too far. The solution is less people, but until that happens, I think I have the luxury to do my part? (Otherwise Covid will do it for us, it seems.)
  • I actually do feel better. I was already eating less meat, definitely less red meat, just because I think that due to my age I have less need for it. But a plant based diet did give me the calm in my health that I was seeking. This is a completely and utterly personal thing. In the beginning I thought: no one tells me I have to stick to this 24/7 so when I feel like ‘cheating’, I will. And I do not even feel like it. I will never embarrass anyone by not eating what a host offers me, but I do not crave anything.
  • It is extreme, yes. And I was naively thinking that I could keep this quiet because I do not want to come across as a middle aged hippie. But every coffee asks for soy milk, and turning down a piece of cake or chocolate when it is someone’s birthday does sadly get noticed. I have even noticed it stresses people out and as soon as restaurants open again, or when people start inviting friends to their house again, I am sure I will need to explain or might not get invited 🙂 I guess that is on me. I will carry my own soy milk then.

And so the job in times of Corona, the limited social life, the battle to get to see my kids, the university studies, and the training remain, but while I am wearing dresses and eating plants, I see that spring is upon us, summer on the way. Challenges definitely work better in the sun.

Boring bliss

On Instagram, I often post what I am cooking/eating and what I wear. I realize that social media is primarily used to show friend and stranger that life is exciting but one has to remember that one person’s boring might be another person’s rescue.

When moving to another country, or any other way one starts life from scratch really, I think it is vital to establish a routine first, the boring but dependable base of everyday life. Every single self-evident element of an established life all of sudden becomes this huge decision. Which bakery do I go to, where do I get my hair cut, how can I find a good route to jog? So finding that and fine-tuning it does already feel like a big deal. To be honest, the whole first two years you feel on shaky grounds – and you feel incredibly vulnerable.

Do not get me wrong. I am the adventure-seeking type, I will feel most comfortable on the path less trodden. But all things in good order, you need a bedroom in a house before you pack a bag to go camping in the wild.

So for me, posting what I eat and what I wear is a good sign, a sign of victory. Because even though I moved to my home country, I was not settled at all. And unwilling to discuss the gigantic elephant in the globe (my absent kids), coming home is less straightforward than you would think. Less of a coming home than you’d think. And just like in any other country, it took me all about short of two years to get back into my skin.

So next time you see me post my meal, or the dress I am wearing, remember: your boring is my rescue. It just might mean I am finally getting on top of things.

Face recognition

Judging by this title, you might expect an article on the progress we made in technology – and all the pending doom that goes with it. I hate to disappoint but I merely want to share that I have discovered something during this obnoxious pandemic aka global mask-craze.

I first started thinking about this when I realised I am having a tremendously hard time remembering my students’ names this year. It didn’t used to be this hard? Am I getting old? Did my brain give up? Colleagues were voicing similar experiences: it is hard to recognize, let alone remember, a person’s face when you only see half of it. And the half that you do see, is coronated by an untamed hairdo (yes, that was a far-fetched pun).

But I felt guilty about the whole name-thing: it does come across as disrespectful I find, but I am really trying! So I started googling. How do people remember faces? How do we categorize them? I won’t bore you with my search history but some of the articles were very interesting: how an infant’s survival depends on recognizing its mother, and how memorizing is different for everyone, how a dysfunctional temporal lobe might make it impossible to remember people… Don’t worry, I also did some online tests and I am fine. (Dr Google and I are old friends.)

But it got me thinking. In the past I have remarked that two people look alike when friends did not agree at all. At all! And then I realized: I categorize people by their mouth. Eyes too, but mouth first. Even more: I will attribute certain personality traits to a person based on his/her mouth, I will be attracted or even repelled by a mouth, I compare mouths. So a world inhabited by masked people constitutes hell to me.

It is completely and utterly useless information but there you go..

The best is yet to come

I have been quiet for a considerable time. That was a very conscious effort of course. Not only did I not want to share my private process but I am also very aware that someone else’s misery might not be the best read.

It has been more than a year, and as I suspected before I decided to stop writing, time changes a lot.

The beginning of 2020 was sheer hell. I cannot word it any other way. I hit a low of which I never suspected it even existed. Not in me, not in life. After everything that happened, I started questioning every single decision I ever made in my life. It came to the point that I became insecure – and yes, negative – about every single insignificant and unimportant silly decision you take in a day.  

Twenty-twenty was the year that I will always remember as the year when I contemplated if razorblades would be more effective than a rope. The year when I had my farewell note written. (What can you still say really? ‘Sorry, I give up?’ It turns out I am a practical person and it was full of passwords and pin-codes.)

I studied English literature and I read Hamlet’s famous words when I was told to. We analysed them and I got it. Then I started teaching English literature and I had to explain the exact line to young people. And I thought I got it. Only now did those words hit me like a freight train. When there is so much, just so – SO – much pain, that you think that the only way it can stop is to not be. To consciously and deliberately make the decision to stop being here, the only refuge to not feel, for just-a-freaking-second. You scream silently in your head: ‘please make it stop’ but it won’t. Because there is no way around it, no moment without pain, no pause, they are your children, you have no choice, you have to go through it. You are a person, a woman, a mother. In essence, you are and always will be a mother. So to not feel it, is to not be? And then you realize: I would not do it to me, I would do it to them.

I found a new dimension in the love for my own mother. The relentless and unconditional love she must have felt. Together with the indescribable pain she must have been consumed by. But she missed so much. She never saw her grandchildren. So a realisation dawned upon me: maybe the best is yet to come.

So slowly but surely I started climbing my own personal hill. The mountain that seemed insurmountable at first. Because even when you walk the streets of hell, you can decide to walk them with your head held high. So I enrolled in a second Masters. A useful and interesting degree of course, but also a metaphorical flipping the bird to everyone that needs to see it. On top of that, a friend became a training buddy, and I rediscovered my love for exercise, endorphins go a long way. Because every single decision I have made in my life was one that I stood behind 100 per cent the moment I made it. I know that now. I might have chosen some odd paths in my life, but boy did they have good scenery. I am glad I did what I did. Proud. It has been a hell of a ride, and I am sure it will be for years to come.

Coincidentally, the whole world is in crisis and so many people are struggling. Strange times of which everyone hopes they will be over soon.

It also has been a total mindfuck to be back in Belgium. I live in the village I grew up in. I have brunches and walks with old schoolmates. I teach in the school I went to myself. I study in the university I studied in twenty years ago. At times, it feels that everything I ran away from so many years ago, I am processing now. Once, I was standing outside in the rain and when I tasted the rain running from my face, I remembered a kiss in the rain from when I was 16. Having a good memory is a mindfuck as well. Both the good memories as the bad sensations can hit you like a tidal wave.

I also did not predict how much the teaching job would help me. The kindness and friendship from colleagues. The comfort I get from working with students my own kid’s age. Knowing that my mother and grandfather were teachers. The inspection report that ended with ‘you are a born teacher’. Just the overall gratification from it.

So I decided my radio silence is over. Here is me, at the age of (almost) 44, saying the best is yet to come.

Kafka

In times of Corona, I think it is safe to assume that we are all going through something new, a situation that we cannot possibly oversee correctly, and that this year is starting to feel like we are living in a Kafka-novel. For me, it only adds to the alien feeling I have been experiencing for about 9 months now.

You see, my children were kidnapped by their father in 2019 and despite all my legal, relentless and correct efforts to get them back and to get him to adhere to the same verdict we have lived by for a decade, I seem to wake up in this nightmare again and again since July 2019 and I am convinced I am reliving groundhog day. The girls went on holiday just like they have been doing for the last 10 years, three times a year but this time they never came back.

Every single part of this experience has been new to me – and every time I think I have reached a new definition of heartbreaking, I seem to find another one. And then there was the time were I realized: if I do not slit my wrists now, I never will. But I haven’t and I won’t because the one thing that keeps me going – that one day they will return to me – keeps me alive. Keeps me smiling even. The one thing that makes me hang on that cliff-side of despair, is also what makes me not fall in, what makes me strong and determined, I am sure every parent will know what I mean.

I am not trying to be dramatic. I am telling you this – the world basically – because I get questions about my girls (why are they not with me? why did I move to Belgium all of a sudden?) and I am reluctant to explain. Are you surprised when I tell you it is partly shame? How the f* could this happen to me? And yes, I see the looks of some: what on earth happened that he did this? I see the speculations in people’s eyes about my life abroad and the not so average life I have always led, unorthodox choices I have made but which I still stand by. I have also tried to spare the girls, let me not bombard them with adult issues they might not understand, let us not involve everyone we know. And then there is the roller-coaster of emotions you seem to find yourself on. Late nights using a whole box of tissues because of all the crying and blubbering, conversations with friends that give me courage.. I have been thrown between every single corner of the emotional spectrum and yes, I do feel battered and bruised because of it. The angel on the right shoulder whispering that I should spare the girls from complex emotions and not lay my sadness on them and the devil on the other shoulder replying I did not put them in this situation to begin with. You can imagine the scenarios. But what to do?

I will refrain myself from going into the legal stuff and explaining why this has not been resolved yet, partly because I have no clue but let me also just bite my tongue and limit myself to “Mexico is more corrupt than I thought” and “my ex has a deeper grudge than I ever thought possible”. But it does not serve me to dwell. I am using the proper channels and they appear not to be strong measures. I realize a lot in society is based on trust. Trust that I am loosing by the minute.

So there it is. My dirty laundry. My Achilles heel. My Godot I am waiting for. My Kafka.

Coming Home

Much to anyone’s surprise – most of all my own – I returned to my home country this year to settle down. Home country, what am I saying; I even moved back to my home town! It is a time warp if ever there was one but yes (to answer the question that I know is on your lips), it is still home.

Often I am worried that I insult people when I do not recognize them but you have to admit that people do change in the time span of two decades. To some I can honestly say they have not changed a bit but it has happened that I just did not recognize a person and when they – not very impressed at the time – tell me their name, I honestly went “OH MY GOD..!” Probably not flattering and I do feel guilty when it happens but when I encounter someone that is no longer the pimply scrawny pale guy with the pony tail from 20 years ago, it actually can be regarded as a compliment. (Try convincing them of that though..)

I often get asked if I will be able to adjust again. I am convinced I will. I can adapt almost anywhere so I can re-adjust at home, right? (I might be so incredibly wrong in this regard, I do not know yet, I will keep you posted.) If anything, I am happy and grateful this is home, life is pretty well-arranged here if you want it to be. Yes, I need to re-discover things but at least I can do it in my own language and I can ask people I know. No learning kiswahili, no trying to meet people. The funniest thing was getting used to recycling. I recycled in every country I lived in but it just works differently in every place. In Belgium, there are different colours containers and bags and I have actually gone as far as to take a picture of some garbage, sending the picture to the whatsapp family group, asking what goes in which bin. Garbage, not the sector or level I would have expected issues to be honest.

I am also asked on a regular basis when I will be leaving again. As it stands… I will not. Not many people believe me though. I never really plan life for longer than some years ahead, this is true, my biggest and only lifelong commitment are my children, but I am not sure I am up for a longterm and life-altering move again. Ask me again in some years. I do not consider myself a rolling stone. I don’t think. But who knows.

The one thing to coming home that is really weird, and the thing fellow expats had warned me about, is that I recognize the place and the people, and they recognize me, or so it seems, but I am not the same person and it is hard to explain in what way. So it feels very double to reminisce. This feeling is amplified for me personally because I am now teaching in the school where I went myself and walking the halls in a different role is confrontational to say the least.

The one thing that is not weird at all, but which I was prepared for as well, is that I am homesick for Africa, maybe even more than I had anticipated. I guess it is like longing for your childhood: it was great while it lasted but there is no going back because it just isn’t there anymore. Africa is, of course, but my African life isn’t: all my friends moved by now. (Give or take a few.) I will go back, for sure, but as it stand now, just for a holiday: soak up that golden sun, and smell those dusty plains. I guess you can take the girl out of the wild, but you cannot take the wild out of the girl.

Music

Since moving from one continent to the other was a big change, I am trying to experience as many new things with my girls as I possibly can. So when they asked if we could go to Lollapolooza – the 3 day music festival – I was quick in saying yes. Whether we spend a weekend in the Atacama desert or we go and listen to Lenny Kravitz and Post Malone in park in Santiago, it is all new to them so fine by me. I am already happy they are not anti-social, and have some interests besides spending time on their computer.

I have to say festivals have become quite a bit more expensive than when I was a teenager but I have to admit my last ticket purchase is quite a while ago. The atmosphere at the festival itself was very relaxed, it probably helps that it was an alcohol-free festival. I did walk in cloud of a secondhand weed smoke for the full time we were there though. Very chill indeed. Leave it to the Belgians to smuggle in booze though, resourcefulness translated in ziplock bags in bras and the likes. The girls did not spend one single minute with me by the way, we entered and like an arrow out of a bow, they were off. All the better. And they are now enthusiastic fans of twenty one pilots.

Another musical event that they were definitely not asking for but which I wanted them to try was an opera. The opera in Santiago is not only a very beautiful building, but for them to experience some Verdi seemed like an equally important cultural experience to me. If they then decide they are not fans, fine by me, but you have to try anything once, no? So we read the story of “La Fuerza del Destino” the day before (nothing worse than not being able to follow) and we dressed up the day itself and off we went.

I know that I am an incredible cry baby myself and I will tear up with a good book, movie – even with a good song for god’s sakes – but I did not exactly expect them to appreciate it quite the same way. We had watched ‘Pretty Woman’ on Netflix some days before and Vivian in the movie had been moved by opera as well so I was hoping they would be open to the idea.. When the second break came, the youngest said (in a very disappointed voice I must add): “another break? how long is this opera?” Sitting still for 3 hours did seem a tad long for her. They also made the very correct observation that the people with the expensive seats had dressed up but that people in the upper balconies had not, which I found an incredible pity. But I think my eldest daughter appreciated it. She is also the one that plays flute so maybe that had something to do with it.

Anyway. So they are two experiences richer. Both music but very different. I can but only offer, right?

Jouska

When I was a child, I had an imaginery friend. I am fully aware that I can pretend to say this in a very neutral tone of voice but it is a source of jokes – or at least some frowning. My brothers still tease me with this fact and my mother has admitted in the past she contemplated visiting a shrink with the child version of me. Why on earth a person with four siblings still feels the urge to invent another person is beyond me now but I vividly recall my friend, we had actual conversations in which I acted out both participants. (Okay so a shrink might not have been a bad idea.)

So imagine my relief (joy even) when I come across a word as “jouska”, which means as much as ‘playing out a hypothetical conversation in your head’. The word that acknowledges that sane adults talk to themselves.

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What a beautiful word. What a beautiful concept. What a beautiful realisation that I am not the only person doing this. I mean, if there is a word for it, it is common, no? I actually play out dialogues in my head so often, and so well of course, I have thought about a job as a writer for Netflix, because yes of course: I even imagine the looks, pauses, movements and setting too. Doesn’t everyone?